I had to do a last minute rejig of Friday’s lecture so that we could talk about the coverage of Gaddafi’s death. Quite a few of the students seemed to have followed the story and found it interesting so they’re probably on the right degree course! A lot of them were shocked that most British media outlets chose to show graphic images of Gaddafi prominently. That was interesting because I thought maybe the YouTube generation would have a different attitude – it’s out there so you have to share it. Clearly that’s not necessarily the case. I’ve pointed them in the direction of Mary Hockady’s blog about why the BBC took the decision to show the images. The comments after the article are interesting with one person even asking if the images contravened the BBC’s Code of Ethics regarding Safeguarding Children. I’m still thinking about that one. I certainly didn’t want to see the photos and video but I did want to see first hand the available evidence that suggested he’d been killed. But that’s probably because I’m a journalist. Would members of the public be happy to hear John Simpson or whoever telling them that they’d seen the grim images on their behalf so the audience didn’t have to, sparing them the trauma?
So most of the lecture was about verification and sources for stories. We grappled with the dilemma facing all newsrooms – speed versus accuracy. The students are generally quite keen on the accuracy thing! But they also realised there’s a huge temptation to cover stories just because they’re too good to miss. In the end, we vaguely concluded that social media/UGC/citizen journalism mean that images and video are shared round the world far quicker than any traditional news organisation can match and far more quickly than it takes to carry out traditional 2-source verification. So the best a news organisation can do is to be transparent about what it does and doesn’t know for sure and what sources it’s using. Obviously in-house expertise allows the journalists to assess which sources are credible and which aren’t. This kind of transparency also helps the verification process because mistakes can, theoretically, be rectified quickly. Bulletins would have a different approach from rolling news though because they’re programmes of record where journalists can stand still for a moment and tell the audience that, at this moment in time, here’s what we can be sure of.
It made me wonder if news journalism should take a leaf out of the world of science especially after reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science piece in the Guardian on Friday. Read the article in full because it’s good but here’s a short extract:-
Science has authority, not because of white coats, or titles, but because of precision and transparency: you explain your theory, set out your evidence, and reference the studies that support your case. Other scientists can then read it, see if you’ve fairly represented the evidence, and decide whether the methods of the papers you’ve cited really do produce results that meaningfully support your hypothesis.
Is that something journalism could learn from?
I’ve come across a few articles recently which ask whether today’s students have the right tools or experience to cope with the deluge of information that comes to them via their computers and hand-held devices. This article, “Why Media Literacy is vital for Quality Journalism,” from Josh Catone at Mashable is really thought-provoking and it’s worth reading the comments after the article too (in fact, it’s nearly ALWAYS worth reading the comments after any article online these days!) Basically, he argues that the definition of literacy changes as technology changes. So, these days full literacy is not just about being able to read a book or newspaper and understand what you’re reading. To be fully literate in 2011 you need to be able to consume social media that dumps a whole load of stuff on your screen and then still be able to work out what it all means. So can today’s generation interpret a tweet and distinguish fact from gossip? Do they know how and when to check before retweeting or hitting the LIKE button? Is the future of journalism safe in their hands? Josh Catone is worried that we’re OK for the time being because today’s journalists have a good grounding in critical thinking and fact-checking. He’s worried that media literacy training won’t keep up with the “acceleration of the information stream.”
Lynne Russell writing for MediaShift is even more worried about the future of journalism and thinks today’s journalism students are “like no other, in that they were born with a smartphone in one hand and ear pods in the other. The world comes to them, not the other way around.” This, she believes, has profound implications for their ability – and willingness – to treat all these fantastic sources with the sort of traditional scepticism that should be innate with journalists. She works hard to teach them that just because something has gone viral and looks great on screen doesn’t mean it’s true.
But is this fair? I’m a little uncomfortable with this. It feels patronising. Why should today’s students be any less able to learn journalistic principles? Is it right to assume that they can’t distinguish between good and bad sources the way “we” can?
I don’t know. I’ve not asked any yet. But after reading these articles I’m going to because it’s a really interesting question. My next lecture is about sourcing news stories and deciding if they’re reliable and newsworthy. I’m going to get them into discussion groups to talk through some of these ideas.
I’ll report back!
Huge sense of relief when my first slide appeared on the screen in the University’s swanky newsroom. Even more relieved when my audio clips boomed round the room.
It’s a really big room to teach in with fantastic equipment but not ideal for lecturing because half the class have their back to you. The rest are hidden behind 2 big computer screens. I got it sorted by the afternoon lecture and got them all to huddle round the front rows whilst I was talking and then go back to their screens for the writing exercises.
It was really good fun meeting the first years and working with them. I’m struggling to remember names though.
The aim of the first lecture was just to think about how we tell stories on the radio. So we looked at why radio newsreaders don’t just read out stories from newspapers – they’re too long and too dense for the ear to take in.
After lots of talking from me and listening to examples, I got them to have a go at putting it into practice. They looked at an online story about proposed changes to constituency boundaries which could see Salford Quays becoming part of Manchester Central. I thought it was great that the students were so willing to read out their work to share it with the class for discussion. There were some really good efforts and a couple of quirky ways of dealing with the material which hadn’t even occurred to me. Great! I really enjoyed it but, honestly, delivering 2 lectures of 3 hours each is exhausting….
Only a few days to go now until I deliver my first lecture on radio journalism to first year students at the University of Salford. My slides, notes and audio clips are more or less ready to go, I’ve been shown how to use the AV equipment in the new building (impressive) and I’ve worked out a decent cycle route from Piccadilly to get me there. Not sure where I’ll lock my bike once I arrive; there don’t seem to be anything like enough bike racks and that was before 1500 students descended on the place.
So time to reflect on the process of turning my profession into an academic subject.
It’s been a really interesting experience. I’ve been doing journalism for 15 years so it was hard at first to break it down into a series of lectures for radio novices. How can I tell what’s useful new information and what’s just blindingly obvious? But it got easier and more interesting as I started putting thoughts down on paper. The BBC’s College of Journalism is a fantastic resource too and helped me focus some of my thoughts. The hardest, most time-consuming part is scouring the airwaves for good examples to illustrate my points.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I noticed as I went along was that a lot of these journalism skills I’m going to try to teach are so transferable in a digital age. Understanding and mastering media in all their different and evolving forms has to be a core skill in the 21st century. Being able to communicate persuasively will get you a long way in a connected world.
So there may not be many traditional journalism jobs waiting for the students when they leave Salford but I think the skills they learn will be valuable whatever career path they take.
Most importantly of all, I look forward to meeting the students and sharing some of the stuff I’ve picked up along the way.
And I think it’ll be fun.